Expectations are too low in math education

Paul 2016
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., greets Angelika Noel, 17, during a visit to Josephinum Academy in Chicago to participate in a discussion on school choice. (Courtesy of AP)

A few weeks ago, Michael and I shared our thoughts on Common Core and the question of education reform, but that topic is so broad that I thought it merited more discussion, especially in light of some of the controversies that have flared up in the past few weeks over Common Core’s

math standards.


Recently, a picture of a typical Common Core math problem went viral that featured a frustrated parent’s response to the problem’s ostensibly nonsense nature. The problem asks students to look at a hypothetical student’s solution to a subtraction problem (427 minus 316), correct the error and then write a letter to said hypothetical student explaining where he went wrong. The parent thought these instructions were silly, wrote out the answer and explained that the writers of the problem were merely making this simple equation more difficult than it needed to be.

And in truth, the problem was more difficult than it otherwise needed to be. The calculation is relatively simple. But the problem required more from the student on purpose. Vox posted an article a few days ago on this problem in which they cited Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher, who gave his opinion on the state of math education: “In the past, students had this sense that math was some kind of magical black box. That wasn’t good enough.”

I have worked as a high school enrichment tutor for the past two years, and in my experience, Meyer’s assessment is dead on. A few months ago I was working with a student on calculating pH of a solution for his chemistry homework. That sort of calculation requires the use of logarithms. I asked my student if he knew what a logarithm was. His response? “No, our teacher just told us it would take too long to explain and he said to push the LOG button whenever we need to find it.”

Another student of mine started learning trigonometric ratios (sine, cosine and tangent) in her geometry class last week. With each problem we worked on together she was adamant in having me tell her which ratio to use: “Look, just tell me whether or not I use sine on this one and I’ll plug it in. Easy, right?” I’ve had students that can memorize the quadratic formula but have no idea what it means. I’ve taught students to factor polynomials who can’t spell the word “polynomial.” The common trend in their classroom instruction tends to be that the teacher gives a new formula the students learn it just well enough to be able to plug in a random set of numbers and get a result from their calculator and then the class moves on.

And that’s certainly useful, but what these kids are learning is not math. Nothing they do in their homework assignment could not be done more efficiently by a program like Wolfram Alpha. There is no point to practicing algebra and geometry if you have no idea what the theoretical underpinnings of these concepts entail.

So yes, I do think that Common Core math makes practicing these concepts more difficult. And I would not have it any other way. If we want to live in a world in which people don’t recoil every time they see an equation with a variable, we have to teach our students more about math than how to press a series of buttons on a calculator.

Bub is a senior majoring in English, political science and history.

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